Punk Lives

Darby Crash lived fast, died young and left a needle-tracked corpse. The year was 1980, the heyday of LA punk, and I was a student at Loyola Marymount. All my housemates were lighting candles for John Lennon, whose murder had just shocked the world.. I wanted to kick in a window for Darby.

Fast forward 29 years. Crash, the infamous Germs singer, has been dead longer than he ever lived, but his mystique lives on in a new movie by Rodger Grossman, who became obsessed with Crash after seeing him perform on Penelope Spheeris’s seminal punkumentary, The Decline of Western Civilization.

“What We Do is Secret” comes out in LA on August 22, and it’s a loving ode to the naïve, self-destructive Crash and LA’s DIY punk scene.

I never caught The Germs in their spasmodic heyday. Many who claim they did are dead and half the others are lying. The band played few gigs – vandalism and violence had gotten them banned from almost every club in LA.

But I did get my bad old self over to the Starwood when Darby played an infamous post-Germs gig in 1980, right after he’d returned from hanging out with Adam Ant in London. Darby was a New Primitive now, decked out in a Mohawk, Indian warpaint and leather leggings. (Grossman has him wearing torn Sex Pistols pants with bobby pins and zippers so my memory’s probably faulty) The songs were cacophony, the crowd jeered and Darby himself reeled around the stage, oblivious.

It was like watching Grand Guignol, with the primal painted creature on stage violently embracing the dual roles of god and sacrificial victim. Not everyone there hated him. Many were lost in their own addled trances, slamming and pogoing like punk dervishes. I stood on the sidelines, entranced. The Dionysian spectacle of it, the orgiastic apocalypse of punk, felt like mainlining a new religion. The crowd, the chords, the words thudding inside your brain…what more do you want when you’re 20?

No one knew Darby would be dead soon. But even I realized this wasn’t the energy of X, the Plugz, Blasters or so many other LA bands. There was a palpable sense that Darby had gone beyond where most of us could follow.

So now it’s 2008 and I clip-clop into the Egyptian Theater one recent afternoon for a screening of “What We Do is Secret” and run into Stella from KXLU, whose show Stray Pop first brought punk to the middle-of-the-road Loyola masses. We reminisce about the five punks we knew there. I’m hopelessly out of touch.

Then comes the movie, whose music supervisor, Howard Paar, knows his stuff. He used to run the ON Club, a ska nightclub on the grungy (back then) Echo Park end of Sunset Boulevard where I spent many happy evenings. I’d discovered it shortly after living in Europe, where I’d met the ska band Madness on a Channel crossing. They boasted their record was #1 on the British charts but I’d been on the Continent awhile and thought these spotty, pale 15 and 16-year-olds (I was all of 19) were pulling my leg.

“What We Do” features plenty of Germs songs (sung by the actor Shayne West, who’s now an official band member) and the decision to recite the signature Darby song-poem “Manimal” instead of singing it gives his haunting lyrics even more power.

I giggled when the Germs visited Rodney Bingenheimer’s “Rodney on the Roq” show. Rodney’s weedy musical voice and his fanboi enthusiasm inspired both mockery and jealousy, but his KROQ show was the soundtrack to our lives back then, a raw, non-commercial program that played local bands like the Suburban Lawns, whose glorious “Gidget Goes To Hell” is heard briefly in the movie.

This conjured up memories of watching Sue Tissue, long, auburn-tressed lead singer of the Lawns, yelp “Oh My Janitor” as she stood, stiff and strange, in a weird Mormon-ish pastel dress on the grungy Starwood stage. My boyfriend at the time, Lawrence Welsh, was in a local band called The Alcoholics so if they weren’t playing, we were making the rounds to hear other bands.

As the credits rolled over David Bowie’s “Rock and Roll Suicide,” I staggered out into a sunny August afternoon in gentrified Hollywood, which seemed suddenly deeply wrong. But I had dinner to get and kids to put to bed. It was another world, and I’d been gone for miles now.


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